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The EU is right – 2018 should be the last time the clocks go back

EU plans look likely to end daylight savings times in 2019. This means that Sunday's clock change could be the last and the science and economics of the proposed change make complete sense.

Fall back, spring forward. Or is it spring back, fall forward? Does that mean we have longer, or shorter, in bed? Will I be more or less tired? Everything could be about to change. 

The clocks go back on Sunday, October 28, bringing an end to British Summertime and ushering in longer nights – as well as an extra hour of sleep. However, if EU plans are accepted, the bi-annual confusion of daylight saving times will soon be a thing of the past.

In September, the European Commission published a proposalto end seasonal time changes across the continent. If it becomes law, it means clock-tweaking will be stopped as soon as 2019. Clocks would go forward again on the last Sunday in March, and countries would have the option to turn them back in October. After that, there’d be no more changes. 

The move has a great deal of support across Europe. A public consultation found 84 per cent of citizens across all 28 member states were in favour of putting an end to bi-annual time change. The consultation had the highest number of responses ever received in any European Commission public consultation: 4.6 million people. 

“Millions responded and [they] believe that in future, summer time should be year-round, and that's what will happen,” said the commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker at the time. The proposals say EU member states will have the freedom to decide their own standard time – so could opt for either year-long summer or winter time. All this relies on a pretty ambitious schedule of support from national governments and MEPs, with adoption needing to be decided by March 2019 at the latest. 

Modern summertime changes were introduced in Europe during the 20th century, first by Germany and France during the first World War to conserve energy by burning less coal. Britain, along with other countries, followed suit, and in the following decades a variety of nations flipped in and out of seasonal changes. For example, the UK and Ireland kept British Summer Time (BST) going all-year in 1968 but then switched back again in 1972. The EU introduced legislation in 1996 to unify the practice across the continent: bi-annual clock changes, one on the last Sunday of March and one on the the last Sunday of October.

So why are things planned to change again? Those that want to abolish daylight savings say the energy-saving benefits of maximising hours of sunlight, a crucial driver in the 20th century, are no longer as important. “Newer studies confirm that the energy savings are nowadays marginal,” said commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic as he presented the EU’s report. “We are clearly heading toward smart cities, smart buildings and smart solutions which will bring much more savings than changes of the clock.”

There are also reasons around health and wellbeing. “It’s a fantastic idea,” says Joseph Gannon, clinical lead at the Sleep Disorders Clinic in London. “Anecdotally, when the clocks change I have an influx of patients coming in reporting some kind of insomnia.” 

“The key thing to remember here is that when it comes to sleep, we’re all built as basically as cavemen. They had no concept of time other than when the sun was in the sky. We get very used to certain cycles of sleep and if we change the time by an hour, the body struggle to compute.”

At the heart of this problem are the body’s circadian rhythms. These are the 24-hour patterns of activity that we go through everyday, influenced by light and controlled by a master clock in the brain, housed in the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the hypothalamus. “It sends signals throughout the body, to smaller clocks that tell you when to sleep, to eat, to go to the toilet,” says Kyle Osbrink, curator of The Sun: Living With Our Star at the Science Museum.

“When you change the clocks you get a mini version of jetlag. If you’ve ever experience jetlag, you’ll know it’s when your internal clock isn’t synced to external time. Basically, when we lose an hour in the summer, it is hard for the body to adjust. One 2007 study suggests we never fully adjust”

Jolting circadian rhythms creates stress on the body, and this can ripple into all sorts of areas. A 2012 study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, for example, found evidence for a 10 per cent increase in heart attacks on the days following the change to daylight savings in March. There have been other studies that suggest daylight savings can lead to an increased risk of stroke, as well as workplace injuries.

Then there’s the economic argument for abolishing daylight savings. The EU is currently spread across three time zones. The UK, Ireland and Portugal use GMT, 17 states in central Europe use GMT+1, and eight states to the East use GMT+2. Depending on whether individual nations decide to adopt summer or standard “winter” time, the changes could see the UK and Ireland sharing the same timezone as much of mainland Europe. That could be an improvement for trade and communications. 

Of course, there’s also scope for neighbouring countries to decide on different standard times. “We ask the states to do it in a coordinated way,” says Enrico Brivio, spokesperson for the European Commission. “In principle we can live with two different time zones. What we don’t accept is that some keep the change of time and others do not, as that would have a disruptive effect on the single market.”

The UK has previously looked at synchronising its clocks with others. Matching France and Germany’s time chimes with the failed Daylight Savings Bill to move UK clocks forward an hour, synchronising the country with much of Europe. Part of the reason that proposed trial fell through in 2012 was because of concerns over traffic accidents. Critics argued darker mornings would mean more road accidents, whereas proponents argued brighter evenings would mean fewer accidents. A 2017 report in the British Journal of Medicine was inconclusive on the effects of daylight savings on road collisions. 

The failed bill also faced strong resistance from the Scottish National Party. Indeed, keeping BST would mean some areas of northern Scotland wouldn’t see sunlight until 10am in the depths of winter and this, some argue, could be dangerous for children travelling to school. It shows how a question about time can quickly become political. Unity of time can support internal trade and communications, but whose time is being kept? 

China, for example, geographically straddles five different time zones, but the People's Republic of China keeps only one time zone. That means the time of day is the same in Beijing, as it is the Western region of Xinjiang, 3,292km away. The time zone is optimised for the capital, where the sun rises around 7am – but won’t surface until close to midday in Xinjiang. 

The EU isn’t saying all its states should adopt the same time zone, but it nevertheless shows how time can be a political tool, particularly when it comes to instilling a sense of collective identity. The planned schedule for the proposal coincidentally coincides with the March 2019 Brexit deadline, although it’s unclear how the UK’s departure from the EU would affect any potential time zone alterations. (BuzzFeed has reported the UK is lobbying other EU countries to stop them changing the clocks). What happens, for example, if the UK ends up with one time and the Republic of Ireland ends up with another? 

“That’s a hypothetical situation and we couldn’t comment,” says Brivio, although another spokesman previously told the BBC he couldn’t see the suggestion causing particular difficulties across the Irish border. 

Time will tell. An informal meeting on the proposal is slated for October 29. For now, remember to enjoy the extra hour on Sunday, it could be the last.


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